Photo via United Nations Development Programme.
On occasion, my interest in South Asia comes to the fore and I prevail on my Inroads colleagues to publish relevant articles, some written by me, some by others. In Summer/Fall 2018 we published Why is South Asia Poor?, a précis of a chapter in a book that I and two Bangladeshi colleagues have written. The book surveys the lamentable state of primary education in most of South Asia – and the difficulty of reform (it will be published by University of Toronto Press this fall). In Summer/Fall 2020, we published Something is Rotten in the State of India: An Election in Delhi, a Ghost in Denmark and a School in Bangladesh. The motivation for that article was the concerted, but fortunately unsuccessful, campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political party to dislodge the reform government in Delhi in a bitterly fought state election. We continue the tradition here with Sumbal Naveed’s article on the decline in reading habits among young Pakistanis. Her evidence comes from a USAID-supported survey.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of literacy in understanding why some countries are rich and others poor. Figure 1 illustrates literacy trends over three decades, by gender, in South Asia’s three populous countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The data are estimates by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Obviously, there was progress in the intervening decades. However, literacy is a complex concept; the UNESCO threshold defining literacy is low (e.g., ability to read short articles in a newspaper) and literacy is self-reported in many of the national surveys on which UNESCO relies. Also obvious is persistence of a gender gap in literacy – even among young adults in school in the 1990s and this century.
Naveed refers in her article to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a large-scale early-grade assessment conducted in India and Pakistan. In India the sample size is about 500,000, in Pakistan about 80,000. ASER’s literacy threshold is the ability to read a short story (about 200 words) in the Grade 2 curriculum in the dominant regional language. In Pakistan, the three languages are Urdu, Sindhi and Pashto. In the most recent (2018) survey in India, 27 per cent of Grade 3 students could read the story, in Pakistan 17 per cent. By Grade 5, in both countries about half could read the Grade 2–level story.